Welcome to Wordorigins.org

Wordorigins.org is devoted to the origins of words and phrases, or as a linguist would put it, to etymology. Etymology is the study of word origins. (It is not the study of insects; that is entomology.) Where words come from is a fascinating subject, full of folklore and historical lessons. Often, popular tales of a word’s origin arise. Sometimes these are true; more often they are not. While it can be disappointing when a neat little tale turns out to be untrue, almost invariably the true origin is just as interesting.

Middle Ages / medieval

The Middle Ages, or medieval period, runs from roughly 500–1500 C. E., that is more or less from the fall of Rome to the Renaissance and the start of the modern era—a rather Eurocentric periodization.  Of course, the people of the era didn’t call themselves medieval or say they were living in the Middle Ages. Towards the end of the period, they would have called themselves modern, a word that is in use by 1456 in English and a century earlier in French. So when did these two terms come into use? And, while Middle Ages is a pretty obvious term for a period between two others, where did medieval come from? 

Read the rest of the article...

medieval / Middle Ages

See Middle Ages.

deplatform

The verb deplatform is rather new. It’s not yet in the major dictionaries, so I’ll attempt a definition:

To disinvite a speaker from an event or to remove a user a from a social media platform due to their use of hate speech, engaging in harassment, or violation of the platform’s rules.

The earliest use of the term that I’ve been able to find is in a discussion of a video game that allows users to hit fascist protesters with a purse.

Read the rest of the article...

Calvinball

Calvinball is the name of a fictional sport coined by cartoonist Bill Watterston in his syndicated comic strip Calvin and Hobbes. In the strip, Calvinball is sport where the participants make up the rules as they go along. But the word has not remained within the confines of the comic and is now being used in other contexts where the “rules” are constantly changing.

Read the rest of the article...

witch hunt

The phrase witch hunt is surprisingly recent. One might expect it to date to the seventeenth century, when real hunts for supposed witches were rampant across Europe. But its use in relation to witches only dates to the late nineteenth century and its political use only to the twentieth.

Starting around 1960, the political use of the term split into two meanings. Previously a witch hunt had always referred to the persecution of a minority, often those on the political left, by those in power. But in the second half of the twentieth century the term also began to be used to refer to investigations and prosecutions of government officials by the opposition.

The rise of this newer meaning is ironic. Previously the term had applied to oppressed groups, notably women. But the new sense is that of the politically powerful and privileged assuming the mantle of victimhood.

Read the rest of the article...

meritocracy

The term meritocracy arose in socialist circles in the 1950s as a derisive term for a new system of class oppression. The first known use of the term is by Alan Fox in the journal Socialist Commentary of May 1956. Fox writes:

Read the rest of the article...

Reinhold Aman (1936–2019)

Reinhold Aman died earlier this month. Aman was one of the leading experts on profanity and the publisher of the journal Maledicta (“The International Journal of Verbal Aggression”), which ran from 1977–2005).

He was also, shall we say, an interesting character. He was, at one point, imprisoned for sending threatening material to his ex-wife, her lawyer, and the judge who handled the divorce case. I must say, however, that in my few dealings with him, he was always quite polite and gracious.

Jesse Sheidlower has penned an obit.

[Discuss this post]

suborn

Suborn is a verb that is usually heard in the context of lying under oath, and indeed roughly half of the instances of the verb in the Corpus of Contemporary American English are in the phrase suborn perjury. The verb clearly means to induce someone to commit a crime, but where does it come from?

Read the rest of the article...

ADS 2018 Word of the Year

Every year I report on the American Dialect Society’s selections for Word of the Year. There are lots of organizations that propose such a word, and I do so myself, but I generally only write up the ADS choice. That may be because the ADS, an organization of academic linguists who study language for a living, has been doing it longer than anyone else, and it may be because in past years I’ve participated in the nomination and selection process. But this year, I’ve been late to the process. (I was traveling when the announcement was made and am only getting to it now.)

As a result, I’m not going to give a detailed report, essentially regurgitating the ADS press release. Those interested in a detailed account of the vote tallies and the winners in all the sub-categories can read the press release. Instead, this year I’m going to write about what a Word of the Year means and the ADS selection process.

Read the rest of the article...
Powered by ExpressionEngine
Copyright 1997-2019, by David Wilton